“Have you designed your swim lanes yet?’ isn’t a good question to ask someone whose only form of exercise is swimming. My immediate thought was of a pool, with the rows of floating lane markers.
It turns out, as those of you who have trained or worked in business process design will know, that a “swim lane” in business terms refers to groups of activities in an process that belong together or are completed by the same department. It can help clarify the responsibilities within a process by presenting them visually. When you’re trying to set up multiple and complex processes that involve a number of participants it makes sense.
It’s a helpful metaphor since swim lanes keep swimmers apart and moving in the same direction, but don’t extend the metaphor too far – swimmers in swim lanes are generally trying to beat the other swimmers to the end of the pool. In a business process there isn’t much to “win” by being the first to finish your steps in the process.
So if you’re working business process diagrams use the term, it has a technical meaning that makes sense. Avoid using it as a synonym for a department, role, or stakeholder group.
It lost out in the first round of the Forbes Annoying Business Jargon Matchup in 2012, where the eventual winner was “drinking the Kool-aid”, so apparently this term is more useful and perhaps less abused than most jargon.